I sat at one of the jumble of plastic tables of Le Cafe L'Homme Bleu, out in front of the hotel. I was alternately writing in my diary and watching the black and white TV mounted on a Seven Up crate in the corner. It was past mid-afternoon, but the day was very hot, and as the sun swallowed up one segment of shade I kept moving tables to another. The TV programme appeared to be a fundamentalist franchise of "The Price Is Right", in which contestants were quizzed on their knowledge of Islamic holy sites. Though I did not understand Arabic, the thing which made it such compelling viewing was a studio audience of woman screaming and shouting like a game show audience anywhere, but all of them in full veil.
I was interrupted by a male voice. 'Excusez-moi, monsieur.' As I had to look up into the full glare of the afternoon sun, it me took a few moments fully to appreciate the bizarre appearance of the man who stood above me. He was dressed in what must once have been a long military-style jacket, but was now a mess of mottled threads, a shagpile collage of blue hair. The garment was fastened at the waist with a crude steel fibule. This was just as well as the young man - I could see now that he was indeed still young - wore no trousers beneath the coat, in fact no other clothing at all beyond a pair of sandal-like shoes cut from old truck tyres and fastened to his feet with frayed lengths of rope. His deeply tanned face had the serenity of the desert itself, and from it sprang a profusion of curly blond beard. His hair, which was also blond and curly, had entrapped specimens from the landscape through which he had passed - twigs, seeds, fragments of dried blossom. His eyes were African sky blue, the whites as white as the albumen of a freshly poached egg.
'Oui?' I said.
'Excusez-moi,' he repeated, as I blinked up into the sun. 'Je cherche Tombouctou.'
Fastening onto his meaning, I broke into English, half to myself. 'You're looking for the way to Timbuktu?'
'Oh, you speak English,' he said with obvious relief.
'Thank God.' He released a deep-wrought sigh. 'Haven't spoken it in months so it seems.'
I gestured to the chair opposite mine, and with another sigh, this one slow, like a tyre deflating, he collapsed himself into it.
'You're going to Timbuktu,' I confirmed, when he had settled himself.
'Yes. Well, it's on my way at any rate.'
'Bus? Bush taxi?'
'Walking?' I said, with barely disguised incredulity. 'You're walking there?'
'Yes. You can do a good deal of walking in Africa. It's a big place.'
The slim shade was already moving on from us, and all the tables were subjected to the full weight of the afternoon sun. The hard blue air was motionless, the heat stifling. His gaze strayed past me to a rusted out "Buvez Coca-Cola" sign at my shoulder.
'I am somewhat, yes.' Then without warning he swayed forward in the chair, wilting before my eyes. I just managed to catch him by the arm. It was sinewy as rope.
'Are you alright?'
'Yes, yes, don't worry about me,' he said, but his head settled down onto the table and stayed there. Enlisting the help of a boy who waited at the tables, I helped him up the dusty terrazzo-tiled steps to my room on the first floor above the cafe, overlooking the street. We settled him onto the bed, and I got him to drink some bottled water. He drank seriously, like a camel at a wadi.
'Not too much all at once,' I suggested.
But he drank on, as if he knew what he was doing, and would know exactly when to stop. When he finally did so, he carefully capped the bottle and set it down on the bed beside him. 'Thank you.'
The boy took his leave, retreating with slow, backward steps until he slipped out through the doorway, and eased the door shut behind him.
Eyes accustoming themselves to the room's shadowy interior, the man took in his new surroundings by degree, the blue luminescence of his gaze alighting here and there.
'You're sure you're all right now.'
'I am, thank you.'
'You're English,' I said.
'Yes. From London.'
In his ragged blue coat and truck tyre sandals, he looked like a post apocalyptic harlequin or a saltbush preacher. Only the eyes seemed at odds with this raffish impression. They were remote. The word 'purified' came to my mind. I watched him as he looked out my window onto the street below. A cloud of burnt orange dust hung out there, punctured by the rush of the occasional bush taxi.
'Is there anything else I can do to help you?'
'Not really.' He returned his gaze to me. 'You've already done enough. I don't usually allow people to do so much for me.'
'Because then I'll come to expect it. And one simply cannot do that. Not here. Not anywhere for that matter.'
'Where have you come from?'
'Harare. Zimbabwe. I was robbed there. Thieves broke into my hotel room.'
'What did they take?'
'Everything but the clothes I was in.' Then he smiled. 'No, not these ones. I picked up these on the way.'
'The police didn't catch the thieves?'
'I didn't report it actually.'
'Didn't seem much use to tell you the truth.'
'Surely you phoned home though.'
'I take it you're not married.'
'Yes. We have three children'
'Oh, Helen would have tried to talk me out of it.'
'Out of what?'
'Well, you see... I wanted to go far away, very far away. Before the robbery, this was. That was the plan. I'd told Helen I simply had to have a few weeks break from everything. Right away by myself. Find myself, you know the kind of thing. But in my heart I actually wanted to go even further than that. I wanted to go so far I'd forget my address, my bank balance, my bloody phone number... Just utterly fed up with everything I suppose. But then, when I got to Africa, to Harare, I found myself in a hotel just like any hotel. There was a pool, a bar, a lounge with billiards table and armchairs, TV, video. The lot. It was Africa, but it was anywhere and nowhere too. It felt hopeless. I didn't know what I was doing. I felt strange, like I was trapped there in that hotel, that room. I saw the sights, met a few people. But it was no good. I knew I had to go further, deeper, if the experience was to mean anything. But I didn't know quite what to do. Felt I was probably going mad or something. Probably was in fact. But then the robbery happened...and curiously enough it fixed everything. Freed me to do what I'd wanted to do all along, because suddenly I had nothing. No credit card, money, passport. Not even a photograph. So I didn't even know what I looked like any more, thank god.'
'And... after the robbery...you just started walking?'
'Where? Where were you going?'
'Just north? That's it?'
'More direction than most people have. Oh, I know it sounds peculiar, but I just walked north, through all of Africa. And I found it was... land. That's all. Land. That in itself was a revelation, you see. It wasn't some terrible place. I found myself walking through land, land like it had always been, long before anyone called it "Africa". How can I explain it properly...? A benign terrain stretched away before my feet, like a carpet. Grassland and jungle, mountains and desert. People living in straw huts, with kraals and dogs and pigs and cattle, with families and cooking fires, and stories. And outside, the forest and the savannah, all the elephants and giraffes, wildebeeste and warthogs, lions and hyenas, hippo and flamingos... magical beyond words.. beyond anything you can even dream when you take the Tube to a job, when you sleep every night in some barred-up cellblock you call home and your feet don't ever even touch the earth because there's leather covering your feet and tar covering the earth.'
'But without any money, how have you fed yourself?'
'I've gotten by.' He patted his taut stomach. 'Though it has been somewhat slimming.'
'How did you cross borders without a passport?'
'Walked. Or waded. Or swam.'
'Borders didn't mean anything?'
'Most times I didn't even know which country I was in anyway, unless I came to a town. Borders became irrelevant.'
'Like they are to a Tuareg,' I suggested.
'Yes,' he said, the tanned face suddenly animated. 'A blue man.' He got up and sauntered around the room, tyre-track shoes slapping softly against the floor tiles. 'You're an Australian aren't you. My brother lives out there. In Perth. He's an engineer.'
'It's a nice place, Perth.'
'So he says.'
'Would you like some coffee?' I suggested.
'Yes, thank you,' His tone was suddenly dreamy as he conjured up the genie of coffee. 'With milk.'
I went out onto the landing where I called downstairs for "deux cafes au lait, s'il vous plait". On return I was taken aback at how shadowy the room had become. Evening comes on quickly here, but its rapidity still surprised me. He had returned to my bed, where he had stretched himself out, rough hands with fingers knitted together, resting on his chest. His beaten old sandals were neatly paired at the foot of the bed, as if he were retiring for the night. In the dark gold light his bared feet looked like crude but trusty implements, fashioned from clay.
'Sorry, I'm a bit tired.'
'That's all right, make yourself comfortable. Did you come far today?'
'Not so far. A few hours or so.'
I resumed my place in the chair. 'They'll bring the coffee up in a minute.'
He turned to me, eyes bluer than ever in the gloom, the whites glaring out. 'Do you know what I was thinking about, all those months walking? You may think I'm truly mad - if you don't already that is.'
'No, tell me.'
'I was thinking about the Mystery of the Holy Spirit.'
'Oh,' I said, unable to conceal a tone of disappointment.
'No, no I'm not a nutter. I am not.' He looked hard into my eyes. 'I am not a lunatic. I am like you. Look at me. Please.'
It was more a command than a request, and I was unused to being ordered about. But finally I levelled my eyes with his. We looked at each other a moment or two, then he smiled quite enigmatically. 'Yes. The Holy Spirit. Shall I tell you about it?'
'All right. If you wish.'
He paused a moment, cleared his throat formally, and finally began speaking in a soft, confiding voice. 'God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit... to tell you the truth, I was always rather amused by that as a boy.'
'The Holy Spirit. Always imagined a ghost in a white sheet. Could never quite picture a face. Could you?'
'I didn't have much of a religious education.'
'But you must have seen representations, pictures of the deity.'
'Jesus, you mean.'
'Jesus. And Jehovah. God the Son and God the Father. I recall Jesus always had milk calf eyes, clear olive skin, and a nicely trimmed blond beard. His father was seated up on a cloud, with a long white beard and a stern look on his face, usually giving Moses curry about the Ten Commandments.'
'I remember Hell the most,' I said. 'A schoolfriend's family once took me to hear this famous visiting preacher. He was fierce, all fire and brimstone. And for months after I used to lie awake in my bed at night seeing demons with pitchforks and sinners boiling in vats of oil.'
He chuckled. 'But you must remember God with the long white beard, and Jesus with the clipped blond one. But the Holy Ghost never had a face, did he? The Paraclete, that's what the Catechism called him. I used to get mixed up because the Paraclete was sometimes depicted as a bird, and when I was a child I thought he was called the Parakeet. I was often confused in class.'
'Weren't we all.'
'The Holy Spirit,' he mused further. 'A faceless god. Yet, he impregnated Mary, if I'm not wrong. Imagine that, a god bonking a virgin. A human virgin too. And why was she still a virgin anyway? Couldn't Joseph get an erection? Were the hours too long in the carpentry business? Too many tables and chairs on order? Too many cabinets and shelves...'
There was a low tapping on the door, and a small, slightly stooped man with a serious expression entered. It was Amadou, who ran the hotel's errands and delivered food and drink to the rooms. He entered furtively, with a sidelong glance towards the figure lying on the bed, deposited an aluminium tray bearing two mugs of muddy-looking coffee onto the rickety bedside table.
'Merci,' I said, and paid him.
Amadou nodded and slipped away. Neither of us spoke as my guest watched him disappear out the door and close it behind him.
'Hotels are full of people whose lives haven't quite worked out, aren't they?' he said. 'The tragic old man who delivers the room service. The teenage girl who wipes down the tables. The haughty bugger at the desk. The guests, clutching ever so tightly onto all their pathetic baggage - if that isn't a metaphor I don't know what is.'
He sat up, and I passed him one of the mugs. The steaming surface of the coffee trembled lightly in his grasp. I saw his beard stray into it, before being drawn back with a reflexive movement of his hand. I took the other mug and sipped. It was the usual, Nescafe with condensed milk.
'What was I talking about again?' he asked.
'The Holy Spirit.'
'Was I?' His eyes were clouding over now.
'Yes. And about Joseph and the hours he worked and him not being able to get an erection perhaps.'
He smiled and took another sip, his hands clearly shaking. 'Oh,I really must apologise. You don't want to hear about all that crazy stuff.'
'But it was just getting interesting...'
'No, I know you don't want to hear it. And rightly so. Why would you?'
'Please, continue,' I said.
'No,' he repeated firmly. 'I've just been alone too long, that's all. Too much silence and too much to think about.'
I was so surprised at his change of tack that I was unprepared for the next one.
'So what are you looking for here?' he asked.
'Yes, you,' he grinned.
'Well, I don't know precisely.'
'What brought you then?'
'I suppose I'd just reached the end.'
'Everything. Nothing seemed to have meaning any more. So I got on a plane and went to Paris. I spent some time there, very pleasant, but that ended up pretty meaningless too.'
'So you boarded another plane and came here.'
'Yes. Strange, isn't it.'
'Not entirely, no. And where to after here?'
'I don't know.'
'That's the problem, isn't it. One is already at the end of the earth. There's nowhere else to go.'
'I suppose not.'
'You don't have relatives back in Australia? Children? Wife?'
'I was married once. That was enough.'
'I did meet someone I liked, just before I left.'
'What was she like?'
'Lovely. But then my departure date came, and I left.'
'Have you heard from her?'
'We exchanged a few letters when I was in Paris.'
It was now dark in my room. For some reason, it seemed perfectly natural to be conversing about my sperm in a lover's freezer back in Australia, with an English ragamuffin who had just walked across most of Africa. Perhaps it was the heat. I realised I knew very little about him - we had not even exchanged names. I was tempted to do so, yet felt perhaps we had gone past that point.
'You haven't told me what you do for a living,' I said.
'Haven't I? Industrial chemist, with a big pharmaceutical firm. Backroom boffin basically. Very tedious.'
Something caught my eye just then, and I got up and walked over to the window. In the poisonous yellow light of the street, a gang of boys had gathered around an old Citroen like ants round a dying roach. They already had its engine out, and signalled to each other with little grunts and quick movements of their hands about the next phase of the gutting.
'And where to now?' I asked him.
'You're really going to walk across the Sahara? How will you find you way?'
'Oh, there's plenty of tracks through the desert. Pistes. Loads of people out there too. Tuaregs. There's water...'
'One finds it.'
'And when you cross the desert?' I had thought better of saying "if".
'Morocco. Spain. France. London. Crouch End.'
'If she still wants me.'
'How long have you been gone?'
'A year, perhaps longer. Seasons do get very confused when you walk from hemisphere to hemisphere.'
He fell quiet then, and I thought he might have drifted off to sleep. But when I looked at him closely
I saw his eyes were alert once more, and fixed on me.
'Now, would you like to hear about the Holy Spirit?'
'If you want to talk about it, yes, I would.'
'I'm not mad you know.'
'I know that.'
'And you may find it of use later, in your life. But you must want to hear it. That's why I stopped before. Unless you really want to hear it, I'm wasting my breath.'
'No, please, speak.'
'Are you certain?'
'Yes, please. I want to hear.'
'Very well then,' he said softly, resting his head back onto the pillow and closing his eyes. 'When you arrive in some places, no matter how dusty and awful they are, there it is, the Holy Spirit. Floating through everything, before your eyes, like a veil of the finest desert dust, a sweet film over all, through all, like pollen. A miasma of divinity. Then you reach somewhere else, it doesn't matter what it's like, where it is... the hills may be green, streams clear and cool and flowing hard, the people happy and friendly... but it is lacking. The place lacks the Holy Spirit. Well, my friend, let me tell you that Africa is awash with it, bathed in the Holy Spirit. It's like no other place you could ever see. I know this because I have been blessed, blessed with my little ramble through this place. I've seen the Holy Spirit. Drunk it in the rivers, breathed it down from the stars. I have stared down into the dust and seen it there, the lovely face of the faceless. That is what you seek, too, in all your travels and tribulations. I knew it from the moment we met. That is what you seek in love as well. You wish to give a face to what must be faceless. But you see, the Spirit... love... cannot be so very... defined.'
His voice trailed off. I finished my coffee and put my mug back onto the aluminium tray, causing the metal to clatter a little. Peering into the darkness, I saw his eyes open, startled, and look about as if he had just awakened from a long sleep. Then they closed again.
'Do you want to get back home?'
He did not respond, but I saw a smile spread across his cracked lips, disappearing away into his beard.
'To your wife, family?'
He nodded. 'And my bed. I would like my bed again now.'
'Well you won't get there. You're tired. Thin. Sick too most likely. After what you've been through, you can't cross the Sahara now. No-one can. Not on foot, alone.'
'People walk across Africa,' he said. 'Lots of them.'
'But they have support teams, camera teams usually.'
He chuckled. 'If only the company I work for, the big chemical concern, knew about the Holy Spirit,' he said. 'Silly buggers, they'd be forever trying to bottle it.'
'Listen,' I said insistently, 'You can't do this.'
But he did not respond and I saw this time he was indeed asleep, chest rising and falling in an even rhythm, the empty mug toppled from his grasp.
I slept in the next room. When I awoke next morning, he had gone, as had the return coupon of my airline ticket to Paris which I had left on the bedside table, with a short note imploring him to take it. There was the briefest of acknowledgements: 'Thanks. I must admit my feet were getting a little tired.'
So now he was to be me. And I him. I had only a couple of thousand or so French Francs left - not enough for another ticket out of here. All I could hope for in return for this act of momentary folly was that I too would see the face of the faceless in the ribbing of the desert sand, and, like him, arrive at something like a destination.
I awoke at a party. A woman in a little black dress was saying something about an art show, while a young man in jeans levered the cork from a bottle of champagne. There was the smell of hashish in the crowded room, which boomed with loud, generic rock. I felt slightly faint, made my way to a window and stuck my head out into the cool night. There was a tangle of creeper in the garden below. The horn of a distant ship sounded through the mist that hung over the dark waters.
'Had enough?' came a female voice from beside me. It was the woman in the black dress, clutching a velvet wrap. I nodded. She smiled and took my hand. Hers felt warm, comfortable. But somehow she must have sensed reticence, or confusion in me. 'What is it darling?' she asked, with a look of concern.
She swept an auburn wisp aside and snuggled into me as we left the party with kisses and farewells, and made our way down into the street. It was quiet there, the air pleasingly cool and still.
'Tell me,' I said, 'have I just... been somewhere?'
'There and back,' she said, gaily. 'Come on, the babysitter will be wanting overtime.' She skipped off down the pavement. 'Oh, do come along now darling. You don't want to be blue all your life, do you?'
Far away, a clock struck. I wondered if perhaps it was not Big Ben.
Reposted, for those who might have missed it the first time.
From my book, "The Blue Man".